On Expert Generalism, Blaise Pascal, and the Letter 'E'20 Jun 2012
Why is it that people are encouraged to develop experience in the shape of the letter ‘l’?
All depth, no breadth.
Why can’t people excel in several things, simultaneously?
Forget the ‘I’, why not think of the letter ‘E’, tilted 90 degrees to the right, as the letter model to pursue?
Depth and breadth.
Not because one needs to be told what to pursue, but sometimes we get hung up on little things here and there. Sometimes we need to know that something is possible, dual- or triple-subject mastery for us to give it a go, or to persist when frustration mounts and progress slows.
And, who’s to say that the ‘l’ goes any deeper than the sideways ‘E’? Perhaps it’s the case that the E is able to develop a firmer web of knowledge and build a more flexible, robust library of analogues and relationships that can be twisted and turned to solve problems that the ‘l’ is without.
Surely, we all fancy more than one topic. How many people are deeply curious about one thing, but not at all another? Multiple interests don’t make us hyperactive, inefficient, unfocused mult-taskers, either; for I believe that a person can scope a set of topics and alternate her attention between them as accurately and with as much precision as the cylinder of a gun cycling its chamber.
Perhaps I speak this way because I can’t imagine those shoes on my own feet (though if you have a pair, let me know as I would love to try them on!). Perhaps also because forcing a person who may embrace the way of the E but is subjected to l is like dulling a knife at its sharpest points only because they don’t happen to fall at a single point (a lot of arms imagery in this post - someone want to tell me what that’s about?).
Take Blaise Pascal, for example, a rolemodel for the ‘E’s’ whose work outlives him for 400 years and counting. What if he limited his knowledge to one domain?
At age 16 he proposed and proved a set of geometric principals for conic sections that came to be known as Pascal’s Theorem. He is the reason for our understanding and application of Pascal’s Triangle, and Pascal’s Wager we apply it to probability and philosophy, gambling and religion.
And he did not just create in the theoretical space. He invented – or at least patented – the hydraulic press and the syringe. He wrote lengthy texts and arguments on topics that fells outside mathematics, such as Christianity. Pascal, a once popular computer programming language, was named after him.
Mr. Pascal was not a one-trick pony. I’d call him an ‘E’ (90 degrees to the right, of course). Cheers, Mr. Pascal.